Maximize site inspections to inspire incredible event design

By: Erica Lalk

What you need to know

  • Event marketers should put themselves in an attendee’s shoes during the site inspection to build a thoughtful agenda.
  • Scout destinations with an eye (and ear and tastebuds) for immersive attendee experiences.
  • Debrief as a team to keep the most impactful experiences in the budget.

incentive trip attendees at dinner onsite at destination

One of the biggest perks of a career as an event marketer is the opportunity to experience some of the world's most incredible destinations. Sure, serving hundreds of guests on an international incentive travel experience rarely means a relaxing day at the beach. But experienced event professionals know a site inspection can inspire fresh ideas about how to have a blast—and leave a place better than you found it.

Taking our clients to a new luxury resort or up-and-coming global destination is the most fun aspect of my job. Yes, there’s a lot on the line. Incentive trips are a significant investment for host organizations. Budget dollars and brand reputation are at stake. That’s why having an incredible time is truly part of the job. Embrace site inspections as your moment to go all in and get creative. Put your planner power to work imagining unique ideas that will make guests gasp in delight.

Determining where to send a group requires first-person experience. The last thing your team wants is to arrive at a destination that looks good in online photos but disappoints once hundreds of people are up close and personal. (Who can forget the Fyre Festival debacle of 2017?) Don’t get "catfished" into bad incentive travel event design.

Incentive trip site visit #1: Presale destination selection  

The destination selection process ideally happens long before the event kicks off and attendees arrive on site. Your presale visit is a chance to ensure the hotel accommodations are up to expectations, including the ability to access venues and activities that your group will love. You want to know upfront if it’s the right hotel for you to execute an event that will truly reward your audience.

Even if you have an incredible time as an individual, sites must deliver at scale. Are they staffed in a way that offers each person the level of attention you experienced? What about transportation? Perhaps a water taxi could be a fun and efficient alternative to getting stuck in traffic on local roads.

Once you can give each of these considerations a green light, the shell of your program is established. 

Related: Destination selection can be tricky. Read the do's and don'ts of picking the right destination for your attendees.

Incentive trip site visit #2: Operational exploration for event design

Making the most of a site inspection requires a strategic approach. Remember: You’re scouting the experience for a diverse group of future event attendees. You’ll probably be doing some beachside lounging and fine dining—all in the name of research, of course. Take notes. The trip’s focus is to collect information that can inform the best possible event design, so document what you did AND how each experience made you feel. 

A tip on timing: Schedule your operational site visit around the same timeframe your group will be traveling on the inventive travel program. The weather, environment and activities could vary widely from season to season, and timely festivals or sporting events can also impact traffic. Designing an October event based on a May operational visit could cause your event to fall flat. 

Here’s how you should explore your attendee experience at this phase of event design.

Test the waters, literally

Stay mindful of your budget while immersing yourself in a wide variety of experiences across the property and beyond. Pretend you’re an attendee and order lunch by the beach. Think about opportunities to elevate the experience for guests.

  • Consider working with the hotel to block off cabanas or create a special poolside zone that you can brand to identify as exclusive access. Everyone loves a VIP place to hang out, whether you activate the space for networking or reserve it for those who just want to relax. Keep the space stocked with sunscreen and signature drinks, too.
  • Think about opportunities to tie in swag. Thoughtful touches like a personalized stay-cool glass keeps their drinks icy cold in the hot sun. Those details have guests saying, “They thought of everything for us!”

See the views from every angle

Ideally, your guests won’t spend all day in bed, but quality accommodations matter. It might sound counterintuitive, but I like to ask for the worst room when I am on a site inspection. If I can have a lovely experience there, it makes the grade. Bring a taste of the destination into each room and consider other ways to activate the senses. 

  • Imagine your accommodations overlook the vineyards. This could inspire a registration question or in-app quiz to learn their beverage preferences. (Red? White? Sparkling? Alcohol-free?) The on-site team can have it waiting to enjoy from the balcony after check-in with a handwritten note tying back the special touch. 
  • When hosting Ecolab in Singapore, we made sure every guest’s room faced the harbor. We included a bottle of champagne, a sweet treat and a card with timing of the nightly light show so attendees wouldn’t miss the marvel.

Shop around

Scout locally owned stores that sell a product that could make for meaningful gifting throughout the event. Choosing sustainable brands and supplier diversity ties into corporate CSR goals.

  • If guests have a leisure day or afternoon to stroll the neighborhoods of Paris, request housekeeping set up a relaxing body scrub and lotion set from a nearby boutique. Let them know the brand gives 10% of their proceeds back to local lavender farms.
  • In Aruba, we partnered with Vadavas, an inspirational jewelry and accessory brand, to have bracelets available for attendees to choose from at the welcome reception. What’s more, we invited some of the artisans (single mothers) to participate in the gifting experience to share stories behind the products. This created a connection between the attendees and the destination long after they returned home.

Take in the culture

Street musicians create a soundtrack to a travel experience, and there’s nothing like seeing a city through an artist’s lens. Commission creative locals to bring more authenticity and vibrancy to your event.

  • While walking across the Charles Bridge in Prague, a member of our event team encountered an artist who was energetically painting in front of a crowd. We ended up engaging him for a live painting experience during our welcome event. Guests then discovered miniature framed versions of the same painting in their rooms later that night. It’s a gift that will take them right back to their time in Prague every time they see it.
  • Offsite events offer opportunities to truly curate experiences that your attendees could never accomplish on their own. Put your budget toward trip highlights that give guests VIP treatment. For example, elevate a standard catamaran experience by adding a stop at a restaurant that’s been rented out just for your group. Guests will exclaim: “Is this exclusive, just for us? Amazing!” As an extra touch, have monogrammed, oversized beach towels displayed on the boat as they embark.

Related: Use your site inspection to develop creative contingency plans. When a beach venue washed out, a custom-built ship provided a location for evening entertainment.

Next step: Prioritize unforgettable attendee experiences

Before we return home, I sit down with clients to debrief on the site visit. We have a collaborative conversation and design the program around our top experiences. To do this, we look back to our notes to help recall what we did and loved and rank each activity.

Then, I build the budget around those must-have experiences. Once the budget hits its limits with the must-have experiences, I create a “wait list” for things that don’t make the initial cut. Sometimes, money opens up later in the process, like if air costs come back lower than expected. We can layer in an extra gifting experience or get that private beach area we’d dreamed up, after all. I always return from site visits inspired, and it’s a great time to deepen relationships for our clients so we can serve them even better.

Planning a corporate incentive trip? Flip through our incentive travel magazine for inspiration from our destination experts.

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Erica White
Erica Lalk

Erica’s passion for events and incentive travel can be felt immediately upon speaking with her. With 15+ years' experience planning and operating global travel and incentive experiences, she’s been well prepared for her role as Event Design Leader. From day one of working with clients, Erica prioritizes building strong, trustworthy relationships while offering original ideas that elevate the attendee experience. When she’s off the clock, you can find her laughing with her family or chatting with her Husky, Naya. And if you have a Peloton, send her your username, so you can become best friends.